Monday, 1 May 2017

Brand New Friends.

Shintar has a post up at Going Commando about "Companion Influence" in Star Wars: the Old Republic. I've never played SW:tOR, so I can't speak to how that particular system works, but I can say that I really dislike "gifting" systems in MMOs and RPGs. I dislike them so much, indeed, that it can tip my decision whether or not to bother with a game at all.

It's not so much the mechanics that irritate me, although I agree with Shintar that the implementation is too often lazy or unimaginative. Rote clicking frequently fails to be fun. No, it's the underlying concept I find difficult to accept.

I'm fine with the idea that my character needs to gain prestige or acceptance with a given group or even with a specific individual. Faction itself is something I never found hard to understand. It makes sense. It may not be very "realistic" but it has an internal game logic that's simple, clear and clean.

Whether you build a reputation by completing quests or killing creatures, there's a coherent and believable connection between your actions, your increased social standing and how much trust others are willing to place in you. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours (something that, surprisingly, I can't recall having been asked to do by a quest-giver - yet).

When it comes to giving gifts over and over again to the same person in the knowledge that the more you give them more they'll like you?  Well, that seems... creepy. It's either blatant bribery or it's something a stalker might do. Whichever way you go it's uncomfortable.

On the left, current pet. Center, future pet. On the right, Mercenary. Didn't have to kiss up to any of them. Thankfully.

One of the big appeals to playing MMOs and RPGs, especially ones that use a fantasy or science fiction setting, is surely that it allows you to do things you can only imagine doing, things which would either be impossible or impossibly dangerous in real life. Fighting a dragon or flying a spaceship are fantasies that feel like a healthy outlet for a lively imagination.

Daydreaming about giving someone so many gifts they'll fall in love with you, though, or maybe just begin to like you a little? Doesn't make you feel quite as good about yourself as saving the city or overturning the tyrant, does it?

How about something less personal? Maybe finding out the local baker likes to grow roses then turning up every day with a dozen long stems so he'll eventually soften enough to teach you how he makes his crusty loaf? Isn't that a little manipulative? Cynical? Embarrassing?

Even when there are no romantic or relationship implications to muddy the emotional waters and no bins to rifle through for clues to predilections probably best kept under cover, there's all that having to tailor your choices or your tone just to get a little co-operation. Sounds like every day at work, ever. When we talk about escapist entertainment, isn't that exactly what we came here trying to escape from?

One of the reasons I abandoned the first Dragon Age halfway through, and a factor in why I have yet to look at another BioWare game since, was the companion system it used. I recall reaching the inevitable stage where doing something the way I wanted to do it would annoy someone I needed to keep around for practical reasons and thinking "I really can't be doing with this!".

Surprise to say, I don't have any screenshots from Dragon Age. Here's a picture of "Man's Best Friend" instead - for a given definition of "man", naturally. And "friend", come to think of it.

My character and her ragbag crew of pick-ups were kicking back in some camp or other and I realized the game really did expect me to move from one to another, schmoozing, finagling, coaxing or blustering and then keep on doing it; forever. So I quit, uninstalled and played another game, one where NPCs didn't act like the worst kind of guild drama queens and I could just get on with doing what I wanted to do without having to run it past a committee every time.

Currently I don't believe I'm playing any MMOs that use a full-on companion system. Lots of them give me pets, mercenaries, mounts and all kinds of creatures and creations that follow behind or run ahead or sit on my shoulder as I roam the world righting wrongs. Some even make pointed remarks or spout sassy one-liners once in a while.

The difference is, I don't have to do anything to make them like me - or at least obey me. Some I have to pay, true, but what's a mercenary without a fee? Some I have to feed but that's just animal husbandry. In the end, they go where I go and they do what I tell them to do and no comebacks. It's the natural order of things.

I don't think either a gifting system or a full-on companion system would, in itself , prevent me from playing an MMO I otherwise enjoyed but it certainly would make me think twice. Project:Gorgon, for example, has a fairly extensive gifting mechanic related to learning skills and spells and although  I don't like it, it hasn't been enough to put me off so far. I did find it annoying, though, even in the brief time I played, so maybe it would wear me down after a while.

The "don't worry your pretty little head about it" school of narrative.

Fortunately the phenomenon seems to be restricted to MMOs and RPGs of a particular stripe, those that are obsessed with extending the illusion of meaningful choice into every conceivable transaction between player and NPC. It doesn't fool me.

When it comes to narrative I hugely prefer the approach that lets you know the writer has a story to tell and your role is to watch, listen and enjoy. Gussying it up with a bunch of meaningless responses and an instruction to pick one is annoying but it's not half so annoying as having to angst over responses that actually do make a difference to the outcome.

I much prefer the silent, nodding protagonists of The Secret World or FFXIV or the reported speech of Dragomon Hunter and Twin Saga. Visiting a spell vendor in EverQuest or an NPC selling racial armor in GW2, paying cash up front; that works too, even if I do need to grind faction to get them to sell to me. Or speak to me. Much better than coming back every day for a month with a dead rabbit, that's for sure.

Still, I might take a run at SW:tOR some day. It's a big name and I feel I should at least look at it for completeness sake. Only, if I ever do, I shan't be going out of my way to make any imaginary friends.

6 comments:

  1. What SWTOR does do well when you make a choice (verbal or action) and depending which companion you had with you, would "approve" or "disapprove" of that action. So if you have Kira and let a Sith live (for whatever reason) it pisses her off. That part makes sense. And if you play a certain way that you know someone doesn't like, don't bring them with you. It's pretty fair and a nice game within a game.

    I don't hate the gifting (I don't seek it out) as much as I look at it as if I am walking down the street and go into a book store and see a nice signed book of a favourite author of a friend of mine, I might buy it and give it to them because I like them already and know they would appreciate it.

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    1. The way BioWare NPCs take a position on the position you yourself have taken is interesting. I remember it well from Baldur's Gate. I had issues with it there because a time always seems to come when you would prefer to have NPC A in your team for practical reasons but you also want NPC B because you "like" them (assuming you're becoming immersed in the story), but A and B have very opposed viewpoints and you can't keep both of them happy. It used to drive me nuts. I just wanted them to sort themselves out and get on with it.

      I know lots of people really like having to make those kind of "meaningful" choices: BioWare's audience expects it. If I could have removed the entire mechanic in Baldur's Gate and just had a whole load of NPCs who co-operated me and with each other without argument I'd have done it in a heartbeat.

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  2. I found that the strength of SW:ToR's illusion of choice, if it can be said to have one, is the experience of the first "reading" and the fractal-blossoming daydreams it inspires. The over-arching set pieces do not change no matter what you do; if you ignore the whole "sexing up your crewmates" aspect, the novel reads reasonably well.

    I ended up doing so in part because my characters were given an excessively restrictive range of eligible partners - in contrast to a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition - but I suppose that's another topic altogether.

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    1. The romantic element of these things (to dignify it in a way it probably doesn't deserve) is something I find slightly disturbing even to read about on someone's blog. I can scarcely imagine how uncomfortable it must be to click through it. Guess I'll find out if/when I ever download the thing.

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  3. A lot of this is probably just differing tastes, but I do wonder if you're not laboring under some misconceptions of how Bioware companions actually work.

    I don't know how things were in the Baldur's Gate days, but nowadays it's tremendously difficult to piss off a character so much they actually leave your party. I've almost never had it happen, despite often playing very contentious characters. Even if it does happen, they always give you enough spares of any class that it won't harm your gameplay. Isabela abandoned me in DA2, but I still had Varric for all my rogue needs. Inquisition gives you three of every class for extra redundancy. In general companion approval usually only affects how many conversations you get with someone -- it's just a story thing.

    This is even more true in SW:TOR, where approval is virtually irrelevant. If a companion "disapproves," then you get less influence, but you still get influence. And influence is pretty trivial anyway. None of my companions have ever gotten close to max influence, and they're still so OP I could complete most quests just by letting them do their thing and going to make a sandwich. Plus they generally don't interact with each other, so you don't have to manage the disparate personalities, and it's all but impossible to lose them permanently (to my regret, in some cases).

    As for in-game romances, I initially found the idea a bit strange too, but I eventually came to the conclusion it's no different than a romantic subplot in any other fiction. It mainly appeals to me as a way to get further insight into whichever character I find most interesting. Whether it works out that way in practice depends. The quality varies wildly from game to game and character to character.

    Regardless, it's all totally optional. Just don't hit the flirt button if you don't want a virtual sweetheart.

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    1. It's true I haven't played a BioWare rpg since Dragon Age so I don't know what refinements they may have made. I thought the changes they'd made between Baldur's Gate and DA had taken things in the wrong direction for my tastes though.

      The underlying problem for me is this: I really don't like any NPCs not to like my character (unless I'm supposed to be killing them and looting their corpse, of course) and I have enormous difficulty playing any character that isn't basically nice, polite and friendly. That causes a lot of issues for me in any game that offers emotional options because I can only bring myself to choose the one that's best-behaved and least offensive.

      Consequently, no game that expects me to make emotional choices that fall far outside what would be acceptable on Scooby Doo works well for me. The Secret World, which is like Scooby Doo as scripted by The Manson Family, did work for me precisely because my character was almost never asked to make any choices at all.

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